As Sierra Leone’s president seeks to amend the constitution and extend his presidency, it is time for Africa to pause and reflect
By Andrew M. Mwenda
The president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, wants to amend the constitution and remove term limits on the presidency. Koroma is not the first and will not be the last president of an African country to attempt this. Many others have done it with success while a few have failed. Yet each time a country attempts to remove term limits, we have a standard explanation: the leader is greedy for power. Since the 1990s, we have regurgitated this explanation, reducing a social issue to the character of an individual.
Term limits were entrenched in the constitutions of many nations of Africa in the 1990s and 2000s. From thence, the efforts to remove them have been widespread in many countries regardless of how the government that seeks to remove them came to power: whether it was through an election victory by an opposition party, a military coup, an armed struggle, a popular insurrection or a peaceful succession after the death of an incumbent president.
The countries that have attempted it have different regime types in different regions of the continent; different bases of power, their leaders have different age, the colonial masters were different, etc. So why does this diversity produce the same politics? Anyone can infer from this that the problem is not leaders but term limits. Theoretically, term limits are an attractive innovation but they seem not well suited to the political circumstances of some nations. Hence, each time to respect term limits comes; the political elite seek to remove them.
Africa needs to think! Term limits may be too much ado over little or nothing. Most of Europe does not have them. Some leaders of Western European democracies in the post-World War Two era have served for long: President Urho Kekkonen of Finland did 26 years, Prime Ministers Tage Erlander of Sweden and Ainar Gerhardsen of Norway did 23 and 17 years respectively. Therefore, long tenure by leaders is not distinctly African. But all too often poorly performing governments get voted out of office.
Even Africa does not need term limits to change governments. In Senegal, presidents Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade were both defeated by rivals as happened in Benin against Mathieu Kerekou and Nicephore Soglo, Madagascar against Didier Ratsiraka, Congo Brazaville against Denis Sassou Nguesso, Malawi against Kamuzu Banda and Joyce Banda, in Zambia against Kenneth Kaunda and Rupia Banda, in Nigeria against Goodluck Jonathan, most recently in Ghana against John Mahama and in Gambia against Yahya Jammeh. In all these cases, poorly performing incumbents were shown the exit by irate voters without need for term limits.
Secondly Africans are not passive victims of manipulative leaders. Some leaders in Africa tried to remove term limits and failed – Frederick Chiluba in Zambia, Bakili Muluzi in Malawi and Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria. Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso was in 2015 chased out of power by angry youths for attempting to remove term limits. In DRC, the opposition last year succeeded (at least for now) in stopping President Joseph Kabila from amending the constitution to remove term limits and he has agreed on a retirement timetable.